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28 May 2009

Celebrity Crisis: a short attention span essay about famous people.

memorable
Picture featuring (left to right, amidst lots of others) Bjork, Ben Sisario from the New York Times, Amrit Singh from Stereogum, Olof Arnalds, Dave Longstreth from the Dirty Projectors

Well, aren’t I late?

A few weeks ago, on Friday May 8th, Housing Works hosted a show featuring The Dirty Projectors enhanced by Bjork. In true internet vulture style, it was rapidly documented by its sponsors, analyzed by the paper of record, and parsed for tidbits of celebrity gossip. S’all good! — I just wish all the looky-loos put equal time into considering the songs: The Girls precision & lightness; Mr. David Longstreth’s persistence of vision, his eternal return & ever-tightening focus on certain musical ideas & lyrical notions (i.e. brown finches!); Bjork’s inspiring power & her voice which seems less like human singing than a natural force.

But, hey, this is the internet. Why would you want to read about this when you can hear it? Without further adieu here’s the introduction to the suite of songs written for the event…

After the jump I’ll post the second song from a different point of view.

So, yeah, no need for me to go deep on the music. The event and its insane afterparty has, however, aroused some thoughts about celebrity. In part that’s because it abutted two other fame-dense events I’ve attended in recent weeks — first, the Dark Was the Night benefit concert at Radio City (which my partners in Brassland so ably curated) and, second, a star-dusted appearance by Vampire Weekend at the Happy Ending Reading & Music Series at Joe’s Pub. (I am helping the series’s founder Amanda Stern here and there as an informal music advisor, gurudom being my latest career aspiration. But no, I had nothing to do with this booking.) As well, an unusual number of internet postings on the subject of fame have stuck in my mind of late. How could I forget this Craiglist ad offering “Many Items from Old R. Kelly House – $1 (Northside Chicago), and this recent edition of Bob Lefsetz’s crotchety internet newsletter about his dinner with Malcolm Gladwell.

Fame fame fame lingers in my membrane like a persistent Apple Macintosh rainbow wheel of death.

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Yup, yup, that’s how we do!

It’s not like I’d ever deny the internet and our culture at large are awash in celebrity, but I’m usually able to avoid it. From my perspective, our celeb-fascination generally focuses on American Idol contestant this, Justin Timberlake that; Oprah this, and reality-tv-star-I’ve-never-heard-of-before that. I’m barely aware of such things because I spend most of my life so deep in a niche — television as much a blip on my horizon as classical composition is to most normal people. I’d more likely recognize Elliot Carter at a crowded bar than I would a cast member of Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. And, here’s the thing, I don’t even know or like Elliot Carter’s music. It’s just that he is a larger personage in the world I’ve chosen to construct for myself.

In the past few weeks, however, the famousish people I actually care about seem to be, for lack of a better word, “around.” Last month I went to my neighborhood hangout for my morning coffee and noticed Spike Jonze sitting down next to me. (It took an IM from my assistant to inform me he was dating the most famous resident of my ‘hood, but still…)

In case you ever are victim to this kind of thing, here’s a guide to recognizing Elliott Carter at your local coffee shop:
A helpful guide to recognizing Elliott Carter at your local coffee shop.

Anyhoo, it feels as if my universe is gentrifying, both literally (Boerum Hill is a much fancier place than when I first moved here) and metaphorically. Many of the artists I work with are now well-known enough that mentioning them in casual conversation causes even non-music fans to pause and say things like “Oh yeah, they are totally a buzz band?” — voices rising on that last syllable like the awed sound of yr average American teenager.

I wish I could say this was amazing or useful or even whatevs. Instead, it is mostly…awkward. Do I sound like a douche because I’m mentioning the name of a friend and the fact that they are making the kind of art I think makes life worth living? Or is it more douchey to play coy & alluring and only talk about the weather?

*sigh*

Now, let me make something clear. Other than the folks I’ve been working with for years, I don’t generally try to talk to the ambient Famous People, mostly because it’s hard to do so. There’s nothing casual about their presence. I recall the scene after a Nick Cave concert in Los Angeles many years ago. (This Nick Cave, not that one.) I was with some new friends from the indie rock sector of the music economy. Many of us were meeting one another for the first time but, as we introduced ourselves around the circle, I couldn’t help but feel a strange twinge of “C’mon now?!?” when the preliminary hellos got to the one-of-those-people-that’s-not-like-the-others, i.e. Christina Ricci. Yes, we’d all seen Beetlejuice. It felt a bit like being introduced to your own mom, simply unnecessary.

That was, perhaps, the first time I was struck by celebrity’s real & unfortunate gravitational force. A few more thoughts about this from someone other than me after the jump.

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7 March 2009

Dirty Projectors @ Walker Art Center

On Friday night, the Dirty Projectors unveiled their new, six-piece line-up at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN. Last year’s quartet has been filled out by former Projector Nat Baldwin on bass and new addition Haley Dekle as a third female vocalist. The set included a number of breakout sets by small combos derived from the new membership.

There was also a raging afterparty at a local bar.

Dirty Projectors, acoustic

Dirty Projectors, acoustic

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21 May 2008

Damien Hirst, Tom Waits, the Beatles, and the birth of the ubiquitous contemporary persona. PLUS, some cool shit I saw while I was in London and some thoughts on the Amerindie aesthetic vs. the Anglophile aesthetic.

Last week I was in London — sighting Bjork at a crowded Battles/Dirty Projectors/Fuck Buttons gig at the Astoria

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…getting my first introduction to Union Chapel in the Islington section of town, one of the loveliest venues I ever have seen…

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…and, finally, checking out Explosions in the Sky’s ATP in Minehead, on England’s West Coast. There, Animal Collective were my overwhelming favorite with their loud as fuck, beat-heavy, ecstatic set. I heard a rumor while over there that their upcoming record — slated for January 2009 — was done in collaboration with a notable hip-hop producer. If the ATP concert’s take on the Animal Collective sound indicates what direction they’re going in, well, start getting excited now.

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(All above images via Flickr.)

Anyway, it was a fun fucking weekend, and — despite the fact that I saw mostly American bands — a kind of topper to my increasing fascination with all things having to do with British music, a fascination that’s been very evident in my contributions to this here blog — be it in pieces about the iconic crusty punk band Crass, top-dog graphic designer Peter Saville, or a possibly-destined-for-obscurity new group such as These New Puritans.

This UK kick that I’m on is a huge about face for me. When I was growing up I was a complete anti-Anglophile, obsessed with the Amerindie scene as defined by labels such as SST, Dischord, K, and Touch & Go. The music I loved was amateurish, working class, and unsophisticated. That’s what I liked about it. Those aforementioned record labels offered a portrait of Americans trying our best to make art in a country quite inhospitable to expression. By comparison, British music always sounded like it was made by people that had gone to art colleges, grew up posh, and were overly cognizant of the history of English literature. To sum up the difference, I think British music seemed like it was overly beholden to the past, to history, to the bank of past knowledge; American music sounded free, and like it had its eyes on the future. When I was younger, I loved the ahistorical qualities of Amerindie; now that I’m older, I’ve begun to understand the merits of music that has an awareness of a larger cultural sphere…

080521_teenagekicks_hirstonwaits.jpgAnyway, even my digressions are starting to digress. What I’d like to present to you right here is a quote that shows not all British people are beholden to the past. I especially like how it wraps up in a bow my increasingly UK-friendly orientation (Damien Hirst) with a quotation from a prototypical American original, one who is currently experiencing a burst of activity (Tom Waits). I like it even more because it then pulls in references to an evergreen UK pop group (The Beatles) and concludes with some vast overarching statements about the nature of life today (which appeals to pretentious assholes like yours truly).

The quote is from On the Way to Work, a 2002 book which presents Hirst’s artistic autobiography by way of a series of interviews with novelist Gordon Burn.

Here we go:

Gordon Burn: When I read this quote from Tom Waits I thought of you: “Most of us expect artists to do irresponsible things, to be out of control. Somehow we believe that if you’re way down there, you’re going to bring something back up for us, and we won’t have to make the trip. This is part of the tradition with artists; the problem with that is that you will have people who will write you a ticket to go to hell. Go to hell with gasoline drawers on and bring me back some chicken chow mein while you’re at it.”

Damien Hirst: Love it.

Gordon Burn: Then he says this: “The fact is that everybody who starts doing this to a certain extent develops some kind of a persona or image in order to survive. Otherwise it’s very dangerous to go out there. It’s much safer to approach this with some kid of persona or image in order to survive. Because if it’s not a ventriloquist act, if it’s just you, then it’s really scary.”

Damien Hirst: I was born with a persona. Tom Waits can say that because he’s older. I’m of a generation where a persona goes without saying. It’s just in your toolbag when you’re born. It’s just part of my make-up. I’ve never questioned it. It’s like everybody I know. You get it in your kitbag.

I’m a chameleon. That’s my joy. I lie and change my mind and make things up. I’m a snake; I’m an eel; I’m a chameleon. And that’s not slippery. It’s truthful, to change like that.

In that area, the best thing that’s ever come out of Britain, or anywhere, is the Beatles. It’s a massive lesson for everyone. It’s the most inspiring thing. To watch them publicly grow up in a very real arena of publicity and fame and success and everything… To see them publicly, before everybody, go through that… I was born in those years. That’s what I do.

Gordon Burn: You were too young to witness it in real time. You were only born in 1965.

Damien Hirst: Fuck real time. This is even better. It’s not like being there, ’cause you can’t see it when you’re there. I was right at the perfect point, in between that and punk, to be able to look at it from the distance you need. If you say to me, “What kind of music do you like?, I go, “The Beatles.” Full stop. But if you ask the people who were there, they go, “Well, the Beatles just did ballads, and they did country ‘n’ western, and they took rock ‘n’ roll and they took black music and r&b…”

They took every fucking kind of music. They took everything they wanted. They took the lot. They just took the lot. To me, that’s the Beatles. They’re not country ‘n’ western. They’re not r&b. They’re the Beatles. They just went and got everything they wanted and they’re pure to themselves and they did it.

After the jump, Damien Hirst starts to digress in a way awesomer fashion than I ever do.

While you were there, you were going, “Do I like the Stones? Do I like the Beatles?” There’s no contest for me. The Stones are just nowhere. They’re absolutely fucking nowhere. [Crosses to the window.] Oh, look at that little black bunny. Little cute black fucking bunny. Can you see it? There’s a baby one an’ all…

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14 February 2008

“Talking Heads are the Enemy” (aka Dirty Projectors as Black Flag, Jeffrey Lee Lewis as Crass)

080214_teenagekicks_markesmith.jpgIn a second we’ll hear from this man, Mark E. Smith. But first, a quote from Jason Gross in this year’s Pazz & Jop critics poll which got me thinking: Have artists lost the ability to act? Is reaction the only thing left? Or, to put it another way, has the post-modern condition taken hold to the degree that all artists have left is the ability to comment on what has come before?

Here’s the quote:
“Lately we’re getting bombarded by acts that cover the music scene themselves pretty well in their own tunes: Dan Le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip, the Hold Steady, LCD Soundsystem. This may mean that rock criticism is in danger of actually being replaced by the thing it’s reporting on. At this rate, these acts will be bigger competition than the blogs out there.”

I think Jason’s point is that the Hold Steady and LCD often employ lyrical narratives about what it’s like to grow old in various pop music scenes. But I think his point could be equally applied to their music as sound — that Hold Steady equal a gloss on Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen; that LCD Soundsystem sound a bit too much like someone with a record collection that includes New Order, Steve Reich, and many a tasty electronic nugget I’m too busy to namecheck right now. Basically, my extrapolation of his point is that bands have become better articulators of the pop music canon than critics or other outside voices; and, more importantly, that they have more ability than critics to revive interest in older music with a flagging reputation. (And if LCD and Hold Steady are too obscure for you, look at how Kanye resuscitated the career of Daft Punk.)

Two artists who Jason didn’t mention, however, highlight this idea even more pointedly: Jeffrey Lee Lewis and Dirty Projectors. They have created two of my most listened to albums of the past 6 months or so — Dirty Projectors with Rise Above a re-interpretation, from memory, of Black Flag’s Damaged and JLL with 12 Crass Songs, a re-imagining — in studied detail — of the music of UK crusty punk band, Crass.

Where JLL’s hyper-articulated vocals make Crass’s intense rhetoric audible…
Jeffrey Lee Lewis “End Result” (excerpt)

Dirty Projectors make Black Flag’s hardcore punk-as-jazz sound almost unrecognizable…
Dirty Projectors – “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie” (excerpt)
…while somehow managing to maintain the group’s emotional core.

After the jump, more dense, overthought prose — and a slurring yet articulate Mark E. Smith!
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